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MOVIE REVIEW

'Illusionist' offers old-fashioned magic

There's a magic trick in ``The Illusionist" and it's not one of the feats of prestidigitation performed onstage by Edward Norton. It's that a movie this old hat, with this motley a cast, should work as well as it does. Swankly produced and hopelessly corny, ``Illusionist" is like an overupholstered wing chair in the corner of a men's club -- you settle in only to be startled by how ridiculously comfy you are.

Based on a short story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser (originally published in 1990's ``The Barnum Museum"), ``The Illusionist" immediately plops us into the front row of a theater in Vienna, circa 1900.

An intense young man sits onstage, his grimace and Vandyke beard giving him a Mephistophelean air. He concentrates, the crowd rustles apprehensively, and suddenly the misty figure of a woman appears out of thin air. She reaches out to the audience, as if to impart something of great importance -- and a police inspector halts the proceedings, bringing in a line of officers to shut the show down. The audience is close to rioting.

Norton is Eisenheim, the illusionist -- a man of magnetic and mournful gravitas -- and the woman, the Du chess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), his beloved. Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a butcher's son poised for great things in the waning days of the Hapsburg Empire, is the point man for Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Sophie is engaged to the prince, who is not used to commoners taking his playthings away.

That's the set-up: Director Neil Burger lines up his characters like figures in a juicy stage melodrama, then cranks up the flashback machine.

The pleasure of ``The Illusionist" lies in its luxuriant belief in old-fashioned verities like character and storytelling; it's as thin as a sheet of marbled endpaper and as cleanly crafted. We learn of Eisenheim's rural beginnings, and of the childhood love between a rough boy and a pampered but ardent young noblewoman. We see the beginnings of the boy's gift for magic and understand that, like Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads, his breakthrough has to be mysterious and unknown.

Eisenheim subsequently appears fully formed in fin de siecle Vienna and wows the paying customers with such baroque illusions as an orange tree that grows from a seed as the audience watches. This trick delights Chief Inspector Uhl, an intelligent but complacent fellow who considers himself an amateur magician.

The inspector has better things to do. After Eisenheim is reunited with Sophie and the depth of their passion revealed to the sadistic crown prince in a dangerous battle of wits at a palace command performance, Uhl is instructed to consider the illusionist public threat number one.

Beyond that I will not go, other than to advise against the foolishness of playing cards with a magician or with Edward Norton. ``The Illusionist" toys with loss and the madness of crowds, with European political maneuverings, the rise of the common man, and backstage bookkeeping, but at heart it's a rapturous con game -- like a locket that figures prominently in the plot, it shouldn't snap together logically, but it does.

As directed by Burger (whose only previous work was 2002's no-budget fake documentary ``Interview With the Assassin"), the movie's handsome in a pleasingly self-conscious way. It's been a while since we've been treated to such period splendor in the service of ``mere" entertainment: gowns swirling, gas lamps hissing, horse hooves clattering on the cobblestones. The opulent decor suckers us in, and Philip Glass's score -- one of his most varied and seductive -- completes the illusion of depth.

But ``The Illusionist" has been constructed for our amusement, and much of the fun comes from watching different acting styles thrown together like cats in a sack. Norton banks his powers to play Eisenheim straight, with sudden shafts of anger and sadness, and if he edges close to self-parody at times, he's still the grounding principle the movie needs. Anyway, you can't take your eyes off him.

Sewell takes the throbbing-vein approach, making the crown prince a capricious monster of pure ham; he's playing to the back seats, bless him. Biel -- whose casting has been a matter of concern to ``7th Heaven" fans -- manages to not look like a mall chick in period finery. She's elegantly lovely, in fact, and since her role doesn't require heavy dramatic lifting, she gets off with hardly a singe mark.

As mesmerizing as Norton is, though, the show's stolen by Paul Giamatti, who gets the joke of the movie but never stoops to winking. Chief Inspector Uhl is the one character who holds the story's many strands together, and Giamatti treats the part as -- dare I say it? -- a particularly fine glass of pinot noir. He inhales the bouquet, rolls the overripe dialogue over his tongue, savors the heady undercurrents of butter and fruit. The man stops just short of getting drunk.

Instead, it's we who stagger giddily away from ``The Illusionist," happy to have feasted on more taste than substance.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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